This morning I started reading a book titled Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications. It was a present from a friend who works with pre-service teachers and thought I’d find it interesting. I’ve only read the first couple of chapters, and already I have a million things going through my head.
If you are unfamiliar with UDL, the idea is to design learning environments, activities, and assessments that make it possible for all learners to succeed. Whether students have disabilities or need a little extra challenge to keep them engaged, UDL states that there should be flexibility in how materials are accessed and how students demonstrate mastery of skills and knowledge.
UDL has been around for a while now, and even Congress has weighed in on its importance by passing the Higher Education Opportunity Act (passed in August of 2008). It is hard to look through any publication about education without running into the term a few times. So why are we still ignoring what huge volumes of research show us is a great practice?
As an ITRT, my job involves meeting with teachers to craft learning activities that maximize the benefits of technology to all students. I usually try to emphasize creativity and flexibility of expression. Teachers sometimes worry that this will lead to chaos. With poor planning, it very well could. However, it is possible to let students choose how they access content and their own means to demonstrate learning. The perfect example is Ms. Exum’s G21 project, Becoming Spain.
For the second year in a row, Ms. Exum’s students recreated cities of spain on their classroom walls. They had to research of the most representative economic, cultural, and political aspects of each city. The students had to select a city as a large group, then select a particular topic of personal interest. At the end of their allotted time, the students had to have a personal product based on their individual topic. Then, each class had to work collaboratively to gather all they had learned into a physical representation of the culture of each city on the classroom walls.
Individual student projects varied wildly. There were fashion designs, videos of fashion shows, original musical compositions, sculptures, poems, scale models of famous buildings, replicas of famous art, on and on. All students used technology, but the project was not about the technology. It was a project about Spain, not about iMovie or GarageBand or Google Docs. As part of their research, students read books and articles and blogs, watched videos, looked at pictures, listened to music, etc.
How did Ms. Exum keep things organized? She had specific goals for what students needed to show her at predetermined dates. While the students worked, she consulted with them and gave them constant feedback. She was a hands-on teacher from beginning to end (as all teachers should be).
At the other end of the spectrum we have an assignment a colleague had to complete for continuing education credits. Each participant was asked to share something that is already being done in his or her classroom. The instructor missed a huge opportunity to demonstrate UDL in action when she demanded that all course participants create PowerPoint presentation. Everyone had to have the same parts to the presentation, a similar number of slides, and even went as far as specifying details such as font size and the number of images used.
What was the point of this assignment? The content is already known; it is something these teachers already do in their classrooms. I must assume then that the learning objective was related to the creation of a PowerPoint file. That’s a bit dated, but not necessarily bad. However, by being so specific in the instructions, so inflexible in the form, the instructor made this hard for those who might not have been exposed to PowerPoint in the past (incredibly unlikely) and too easy for students who had the drive and ability to make something more.
I’m thankful to my friend for sending me this book. I hope I can keep making connections between what I read and what I do. Next school year, I hope to bring lots of UDL ideas to my G21 planning meetings. I’ll keep you posted.